Ice fishing is a fun, inexpensive activity for anglers of all ages to get outdoors and avoid cabin fever. It’s a thrill to stand on a lake - you can position yourself right over the habitat, place your bait and lure in front of the fish and catch a lot of fish.
Follow these simple tips for a fun and safe ice fishing season.
Know your ice
Check the weekly DNR fishing report for ice conditions across Iowa. At a minimum, four inches of clear blue ice is recommended for fishing. New ice is stronger than old ice. Before venturing out, drill test holes near shore and periodically as you move to gauge the thickness and quality of the ice. Ice conditions change constantly and its thickness can vary across the lake. Be especially careful on ice around submerged trees and emergent vegetation, this ice tends to be weaker. If the ice does not look right, don’t go out.
Keep warm and dry
Dress in many thin layers of loose clothing. Start with a base layer that wicks perspiration away from your body and keeps warm air trapped there. Use a combination of natural and synthetic layers and make sure your outermost layer is windproof and waterproof. Always cover your head and hands. Wear warm socks (preferably wool) and insulated waterproof boots. Many anglers have portable ice fishing shelters to get out of the elements.
A five-gallon bucket has many uses – it can carry gear, works well as a seat, can haul your catch and can be used as an emergency floatation device if fall through the ice (turn the bucket upside down to trap air. You need a spud bar or ice auger (hand or gas powdered) to cut a hole (no larger than 10 inches) in the ice. Clear the hole of ice chips with an ice skimmer.
Ice fishing rods are usually short (18-24 inches long) and vary in stiffness depending on the type of fish you are pursuing. Some anglers build their own ice fishing rod from broken rods. Tip-ups are popular along the upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa Great Lakes to catch northern pike and walleye. The tip-up spans the ice hole and has a spool of line underwater. The spool is connected to a flag that is triggered to spring up when a fish takes the bait.
Electronic sonar units can help you locate where fish are hiding. Fish usually stay at a specific depth during the winter.
Think small and light
Use small hooks, small bait and light fishing line. Ice jigs are brightly colored (purple, chartreuse, pink, orange) to attract a fish’s attention and heavy enough to sink through the frigid water. Tungsten jigs have added weight that allows them to fall quicker and keep your fishing line tighter. Small metal jigging spoons are commonly used to catch walleye and crappie. You can drop your bait and leave it alone, or you can slowly jig to attract the fish. If you plan to fish for crappie after dark, you can use jigs that glow in the dark. Crappies often feed after sunset, so this is a good time to catch them.
Wax worms or wigglers (mayfly larvae) on a small teardrop lure is a great combination for catching bluegill or crappie. Store your wigglers in an insulated container kept next to your body to keep them from freezing. Small minnows are great for catching crappie, perch, yellow bass or walleye. Keep your minnows in an insulated bucket. Bring along a minnow dipper to keep your hands from getting wet.
Most Iowa lakes are full of bluegills, which are the easiest and most often caught during the winter. Lakes in northern Iowa will have yellow perch and walleye in addition to bluegills. In southern Iowa, crappies join bluegills. Fish tend to be more active from dawn until mid-morning and late afternoon until sundown. Check the weekly DNR fishing report to find out what’s biting where, depths and areas of the lakes that are best and hot baits.
Look for structure
Use the DNR's online maps of the lake you are going to fish to find edges of creek channels, fish mounds, brush piles and rock piles that likely hold fish. Printable maps and the online Fishing Atlas are available.
Learn to use spring bobbers
Fish are more lethargic, eat less often, and are less aggressive during the winter. Spring bobbers are made of very thin steel wire that attaches to your rod tip to help you see when you have a bite, often before you feel it on your line. Sponge slip bobbers can also be used to detect a bite and help you set the depth of your bait. They do not freeze easily and ice can be quickly removed by squeezing.
Bring a buddy along
Never go ice fishing alone. Ask an experienced angler to come along to help you gain confidence on the ice. Let someone else know where you will be and when you expect to return home.
Pack these basic items to help keep you safe: hand warmers, ice cleats to help prevent falls, ice picks (wear around your neck) to help you crawl out of the water if you fall in, a life jacket, a floating safety rope, a whistle to call for help, a basic first aid kit and extra dry clothes including a pair of gloves.